Monday, May 07, 2007

Is your site well designed?

It's a common problem. Many businesses have websites designed by local web design companies and believe that they've received a good service, when in fact they receive an absolute turkey of a website that looks like it was designed by an unskilled amateur ten years ago. But how can you tell if you have a well designed site?

The first thing to check your site for is what's known as the 1990s look. These are sites that were either designed in the early days of the internet or by designers who learnt their trade in the early days and haven't updated their skills. A classic example of this kind of site is Northbridge Police Department.

How to tell if you have a site from the 1990s

  1. Background image - The days of the quirky repeating background image are fortunately long gone. If your site has a repeating background such as the one in the above example you should think about a change. A background image shouldn't interfere with what's on the page or make the text difficult to read and it certainly shouldn't repeat an image over and over.
  2. Animated GIF's - Another sure-fire way to make your site look dated. The animated GIF was a novel idea, briefly, and has long since lost its charm. Nowadays annoying flashing animations such the US flag in the above example make a site look out of date, cheap and unprofessional and should be avoided at all costs. It is much better to have a nice clear picture that complements your design than some meaningless moving picture.
  3. Music – It is simple to embed a little sound clip into a page and so about ten years ago everyone was doing it, and to be fair I was one of them. But I soon realised that there is nothing more annoying when trying to read text than having the same piece of music playing over and over and over. It is not only distracting, but if it can't be turned off, deeply annoying. Remember the person viewing your site may be doing so late at night, on a train or during a meeting, so the last thing they want is to have a crap little ditty that you particularly liked blaring out uncontrollably. If your site plays a little tune, remove it. If you disagree and like having the sound effect, try reading your whole site text with it playing and see if you change your mind.
  4. Splash Pages – Something else that was 'in' several years ago. It seemed that if you wanted to portray an air of professionalism on your website then you needed a splash page. However today nothing could be further from the truth. If you have one, get rid of it as soon as possible. Apart from wasting the most important page on your site and being annoying it is one of the most obvious giveaways of a site from the 1990s. Most web designers avoid these now, however some clients still ask for them.
  5. Site Best Viewed with…. – If your site has "Site Best Viewed at 800x600" or something along those lines then it is in serious need of a revamp. These kinds of messages were popular in the late 1990s, I didn't actually use them myself but most sites did and even today there are some relics of sites that still have them. They are completely pointless as no visitor would ever really change their screen resolution just to view your site, they'd just go elsewhere. It also shows laziness on the part of the web designer, as if they either couldn't be bothered or weren't capable of designing a site that looks good on any screen resolution. The other popular "Best Viewed with…" message from the time was "Best Viewed with Internet Explorer/Netscape." These messages (in most cases buttons) were from the browsers wars of the mid-nineties between Netscape and Internet Explorer. If your site has one of these buttons (and many do) remove it immediately. The so called 'Browser War' ended in 1999 (yes that is eight years ago!) so you are making your site look incredibly dated. More so if you have a Netscape button as Netscape pretty much disappeared and now accounts for less than 1% of the browser market so if you are claiming that your site is best viewed with Netscape on your homepage you are alienating 99% of your visitors.
  6. Blinking/Scrolling Text – These are both now seen as something of a joke among web designers. Blinking text was never really that popular amongst designers but because it was a simple effect, achieved by just placing <blink> either side of the word you wish to make blink (e.g. My <blink>Flashing</blink> Text), that didn't require a knowledge of JavaScript or DHTML it was widely used by hobbyists and amateur web designers for homepages. It was a similar story with scrolling text and both became associated with poorly designed, amateurish sites and so just about everyone stopped using them by the late 1990s. Again if your site has them, look for a new designer.
  7. Garish Text/Background Colours – This is another sign of a bad web designer or a really old site from the 1990s. Simply because you could have a variety of different coloured backgrounds many people, especially new or amateur website designers did. This led to sites that had text that was near on impossible to read. Colour clashes such as a bright red background and yellow text were highly popular! Some sites even had sections in different colours resulting a multi coloured mess that was impossible to read. The general rule of thumb when it comes to backgrounds is to have a white or very light coloured background with black text or a very dark or black background with white text. Most sensible designers don't try to go for something in between. If your site has a coloured background and coloured text you should certainly think about a change. Not only does it make your site text hard to read but it makes it look like a personal website from the late 1990s.
  8. Non-Standard Fonts – Another technique that was popular with novices back in the 1990s was to make good use of the available fonts, I have even come across sites that had different fonts for each paragraph! While it may have seemed a good idea at the time, designers must remember that not everyone has the same fonts on their PC. Even those that did have the necessary fancy fonts would most likely find the text difficult to read. If your site is using fancy fonts as the main site text you should think about a changing to a more common font, such as Arial, Georgia, Tahoma or Verdana. Studies have shown that the easiest fonts to read are Sans Serif fonts such as Arial and Verdana so while it may look fancier to have a great unique font, the viewer won't appreciate it and will probably think your site is from the late 90s.

If your site doesn't have any of the above then you can breathe a sigh of relief but that doesn't necessarily mean that you have a well designed site. There is more to a well designed site than simply the look of it but we'll come back to this in a future post.

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